Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:12 pm on 20th July 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 12:12 pm, 20th July 2018

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on the Bill and taking up the cudgels of the late and great Lady Ruth Rendell, who raised the issue of FGM for many years. I think that this is the first time I have spoken on FGM in this House; I have been here only a couple of years.

It is an interesting history. I was at the Home Office when I first heard about FGM. A young girl, Nimco Ali, came to see me with a few girls from an organisation she had started called Daughters of Eve. She metaphorically took me by the collar and shook me. She said, “This is child abuse. This is violence against women. You have to do something”. It was a lesson: people think that meetings with Ministers do not affect them, but it affected me and has led me to work on FGM ever since.

At that time, in the age of austerity, the Home Office was facing severe cuts. As it happens, I was reshuffled to the Department for International Development, which had money—and has money, rightly so. I walked in and the first thing I said was, “I want to do something about female genital mutilation because our diaspora hangs on to the rules even longer than the countries of origin”. As is so often the case when you are a Minister—as I am sure the Ministers opposite will know—if you meet a like-minded civil servant, you are in with a very good chance. I met one such civil servant who will remain nameless. They said, “Here’s one I prepared earlier”, and brought forward plans for a £35 million programme to support work that was then going on in Africa. We could not be finger-wagging colonialists saying, “This is what you should do”. We were supporting an African-led movement. As said by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the United Nations, 25 African countries and the African Union have banned FGM. So, this was about timing as well, which so often plays an important part.

The £35 million programme that we brought forward was the biggest in the world. I went to the UN Commission on the Status of Women and was allowed to announce the programme, but not the figure of £35 million. I am not entirely sure that I should say this, but I will: at that point, David Cameron wanted the amount to be in line with the Downing Street press release for International Women’s Day. I was sitting on a platform in front of an audience of 600 people, including the heads of countries involved in moving forward on FGM. It came to my turn, I gave my speech and I thought, “This is ridiculous. This is the moment”, so I said, “I am very happy to announce a £35 million worldwide programme, the biggest ever, to support the African-led movement”. I remember seeing my Private Secretary, who was busy on her BlackBerry, gasp, thinking, “What has my Minister done? I will be in trouble”. I was in trouble when I got back, but that is another story. It was a coalition; let us leave it at that.

That announcement kicked off everything that noble Lords will have heard about on this subject in the past five or so years, which carries on today. Legislative changes were brought in at that time. We managed to bring in travel ban orders, female genital protection orders and mandatory reporting. Immediately after that announcement, I did a Channel 4 programme in the UN basement. The next morning, I woke up to a text from the Evening Standard. I phoned in and did an interview, which kicked off the most amazing FGM campaign by a newspaper. It ran FGM stories every day and still does. It is going through a regeneration. That meant that I had a lot of power behind the argument. It also meant that many people, including David Cameron and Justine Greening, who was fantastic, wanted to join my mission. We had the Girl Summit, which sought a worldwide FGM ban. Things began to change, but as has been said, that one prosecution failed. As said by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, the law is not the answer, although it is very important. I will come to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, shortly.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised the issue of equality. I have to say—I have said this from many a platform—that if we were cutting off half of men’s penises, that practice would not have lasted five seconds, let alone 5,000 years. Noble Lords may laugh, but it is so true. There would not be one failed prosecution; there would be successful prosecutions across the land and across the world. In fact, it would never have started.

I want to pay tribute to the work of Efua Dorkenoo, who was the most amazing woman and the mother of the fight to end FGM. Sadly, she died recently, but her dedication and bravery in bringing this practice to light made all that has followed possible. As said by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, she was a brave African woman who talked about women’s sexuality and all its issues.

There is cutting in this country but many girls are taken back to their mother countries. Someone raised the issue of this being the “cutting season”; of course, it is. Any girl who goes missing in the period before school breaks up should be reported because it is a clue that leads to the possibility of a travel ban order. As I said, we made some great steps during the coalition but we did not go far enough. We introduced mandatory reporting but on the front line, social workers, teachers, healthcare professionals, the police and other public servants did not have the knowledge or confidence to address FGM. At the Girl Summit, we managed to introduce front-line training, but it was online; that is vital but inadequate. It needs to be part of the studies that lead to qualification. We cannot expect professionals to report unless they have the knowledge and confidence to do so.

Importantly, a measure that still remains untouched is teaching about FGM in schools, as so many girls have no idea what is about to happen to them. We have to be able to warn them about sudden visits home, signpost who they can talk to if they are worried and explain what might happen. We have to bring this into schools. I am afraid I tried with Michael Gove and failed. I also tried with Justine, whom I hoped would bring it forward when she was Secretary of State for Education, but sadly she did not. We still need that to be brought forward in schools, particularly in areas of high prevalence, where there is extreme resistance by the community, parents and head teachers to spreading any knowledge about this. We need to be speaking to the male leaders of communities that practice FGM. Of course, much of the answer lies within the community itself, so we clearly need to support the brave girls and groups who campaign from and within the community and to make sure that they are given the help and funding they need to carry out their hugely important work.

That brings me to the point of today’s debate. This should absolutely be a tool in the court’s armoury—anything that enables authorities and professionals to step in and intervene to stop harm to a child is vital. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is a sensible and useful addition to the tools that can be used for this intractable, harmful and disgraceful practice.